October 25th, 2021 saw an announcement that caught much of the space media by surprise during the proceeds of the 72nd International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, when Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space, the space development arm of the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), revealed they plan to lead a multi-corporate venture to establish a commercial space station in Earth orbit by 2030.
Orbital Reef, as the facility is to be called, is intended to see the consortium led by the two companies establish the basics for the station by the later 2020s, allowing for a potential transition of orbital operational from the International Space Station (ISS) to Orbital Reef by the time the ISS is retired in 2030.
Under the partnership, Blue Origin will develop large-diameter core modules and utility systems, as well as provide launch services using its still-to fly New Glenn heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV), whilst Sierra Space will provide additional inflatable modules for the facility, and use its Dream Chaser cargo space plane for resupply missions, and (at some point) the original crewed version of the space plane to transfer personnel to / from the station.
Other companies involved in the project include Boeing, who will supply a science module for the station provide their CST-100 Starliner crew vehicle for personnel transfers and provide all ground-based systems operations and support for the station, and Genesis Engineering Solutions will provide a “single person space vehicle” that is already being called the “space pod” for on-obit operations around the station in situations where “suitless” EVAs are desirable.
Blurb for the station states it will be used for a variety of roles: commercial ventures, research across a number of fronts (with Arizona State University leading a consortium of 14 international universities that plan to participate in the research work) and – inevitably – a vacation destination for those with deep pockets.
A promotional video for the station shows it have a long, pressured core module, complete with large windows, together with fore-and-aft docking ports for visiting space vehicles, and multiple port along its sides for the addition of permanent or temporary modules, which can also have their own docking facilities. However, this is said to be the “final” configuration of the station, complete with a multi-array solar power system; the initial “baseline” facility will be far smaller and more modest.
The completed station will be positioned at 500 km altitude – somewhat above the ISS’s nominal 475 km – and will be capable of supported up to 10 people at any one time, with 830 cubic metres of usable internal space – marking it as slightly smaller than the ISS – although this can, as noted, be expanded through the use of additional modules.
The announcement comes as one of several offered in response to NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations programme, which will select up to four proposal for commercial facilities to replace the ISS, and finance the initial R&D ins each, with further funding to cover certifying the stations for use by NASA astronauts. However, both Sierra Space and Blue Origin have indicated they plan to move ahead regardless of any NASA seed funding.
A critical factor for the project will be Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Development of this initially commenced as a design study in 2012, with the project formally announced in 2016. However, unlike the development of the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy (which started development at the same time as New Glenn), it has yet to fly, and has seen a number of shifts in direction.
Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 core stage and their Super Heavy booster, the first stage of New Glenn is intended to be reusable. However, earlier in 2021, the company announced plans to accelerate the development of a reusable upper stage, code-named Jarvis which – in grabbing a leaf from the SpaceX book of how to do things – will be in part be of a stainless steel construction. Because of this, coupled with issues experienced in developing the vehicle’s primary engine, the BE-4, the first flight of New Glenn most likely will not take place until very late in 2022, or early 2023, some three years behind the original target date.
While timeline slips in any developing project are to be expected (just look at NASA, or indeed, “Elon Time” vs actual time with SpaceX projects), the pace of development with New Glenn does question whether Blue Origin can meet a 5-7 year timeline to provide the core of a space station. By contrast, Sierra Space is due to start flying their Dreamchaser Cargo vehicle on resupply flights to the ISS in 2022, and prior to losing on a contract to fly a crewed variant of the vehicle to carrying astronauts to / from the ISS as part of NASA Commercial Crew Programme, SNC has continued to maintain research into a crewed version of the vehicle.
Other entities / consortiums throwing their hats into the ring to provide commercial orbital facilities include Axiom Space, with plans – as noted in past Space Sunday articles – to fly at least one module to the ISS in the mid-2020s, with the planes to use the module(s) it flies to the ISS as the core of a new station as ISS reaches its end-of-life at the end of the 2020s. Another consortium, Nanoracks, Voyager Space Holdings and Lockheed Martin, announced plans to fly a much more modest space station, Starlab. Utilising an inflatable module and core docking / power facility, Starlab would have an internal volume of 340 cubic metres and would be capable of supporting up to 4 people at a time.
Hubble Suffers Further Glitch
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the thirty-year-old veteran of orbital space science, suffered a further operational glitch on Monday, October 25th, unexpectedly switching itself into a “safe” mode that has suspended all science operations.
The switch-over happened after Hubble experienced synchronisation issues with its internal communications”; however, the telescope is reported to otherwise be in good health. This is the second time this year the telescope has switched to a safe mode – in summer an issue with the primary payload computer that took a month to diagnose and rectify, gave rise to concerns over HST’s future – although this issue is not as serious, but there is currently no estimate as to when normal operations might be resumed.
While it may not be considered serious, this latest issue is, however, indicative of HST’s advancing years and the fact that it was last serviced in 2009, so sadly, elements aboard it will be approaching their end-of-life – although it is hoped the telescope will be able to remain operation through until the late 2030s.